THE BRITISH Government is creating a “substantial” economic aid package for the North of Ireland, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has revealed.
Speaking in Belfast last week to mark the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Secretary announced that the programme will be provided on top of the billions that the Treasury already pours into the North.
The Government, she said, is considering the introduction of enterprise zones, measures to improve access to bank finance and support for the North’s Executive in developing infrastructure projects.
Ms Villiers added that job-creation for young people is a “key priority”.
In March, it was revealed that the unemployment rate for 18-24 year-olds had jumped almost eight per cent in 12 months to a record high of 23.8 per cent.
But the Northern Ireland Secretary, who was speaking at the Metropolitan Arts Centre in the presence of Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, notably omitted any reference to the possibility of giving the North authority over its corporation tax rate.
Earlier this year, Stormont’s First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness pressed Prime Minister David Cameron on allowing the North to reduce its corporation tax rate to match Ireland’s ultra-low rate of 12.5 per cent, which has drawn scores of major global companies south of the border.
Despite the policy having all-party support in the Northern Ireland executive, Mr Cameron said a decision will not be made on the matter until after Scotland’s independence referendum next year.
Ms Villiers also argued that economic recovery will falter without social reform.
“Reviving the economy isn’t enough,” she said. “We also need to build a more cohesive society if the hopes and aspirations envisaged by the Belfast Agreement are to be fully realised.”
Referring to “deep seated tensions” that persist in parts of the North, she said there is an “urgent need” for progress towards reconciliation, mutual understanding and mutual trust.
Ms Villiers warned that sectarian disorder, such as the flag protests that rocked Belfast over the Christmas period, “sends a negative message round the world that does real damage to Northern Ireland’s reputation and its ability to compete”.
“It is depressing that some of those involved in disorder and sectarianism weren’t even born when the first ceasefires occurred and the peace process started in earnest,” she added. “That confirms beyond doubt that the passing of time won’t be sufficient on its own to bridge long-standing sectarian divides.”
The Northern Ireland Secretary urged political parties in the North to use the peace created by the Good Friday Agreement and its successors in St Andrews and Hillsborough to move politics beyond matters of identity.
“The stability achieved through the Agreements provides the space for politics here to focus on the issues that impact on everyday life in Northern Ireland in the same way they do across the rest of the UK, things like schools, jobs, pensions, and the environment,” she said.